In Profile… An Interview with Will Johnson

Pages: 38-44
Year: 1995
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

ROLF LINES, Vol XXIII nº 01, March 1995

Volume: 23

Self-effacing, tall and sinewy, innocent, just slightly but pleasantly in your face, 48 year old Rolfer, Will Johnson, originally from Minnesota, was trained in 1976. He and his wife Lyn have founded The Institute for Embodiment
Training in Cobble Hill, British Columbia, 3 hours ferry and car north of Vancouver. He has sons six and thirteen, the eldest of whom he is taking “on a Buddhist Bar Mitzphah” to Tibet this Fall. Will is also a lifelong musician, playing New Age style electric guitar, and can get pretty wild on the dance floor. He arrived at this year’s Annual Meeting, a keynote panelist, with a new book (Balance of Body, Balance of Mind: A Rolfer’s Vision of Buddhist Practice in the West. Humanics Trade Paperbacks), a workshop at the Meeting, and a 3-Day just following.

Will spoke to the adventure of somatic experience as a transformational experience,

of a dyad process he adds to conventional Rolfing and Movement work

a “Rolfing retreat intensive” concept for his clients

great attention to tactile awareness

dropping one’s mental commentary on life

an allowing so full that a huge sensate field eventually dissolves into pure, unruffled Presentness

relaxing; and in dropping tension, heightening attention

a sensory balance just this side of everything and just this side of nothing

an emotional balance just this side of tears or laughter or boredom

a structural balance just this side of falling over


Will’s work does not focus on 2nd Paradigm, fix-it issues. Instead, client willing, he explores a successive surrender to the present moment of the body. Somatic self-acceptance becomes for him a virtual spiritual practice and foundational healing principle.

He repeatedly exulted in the scientific validation Valerie Hunt’s presentation gave to his assertions; especially the high value she placed on full-spectrum transacting between healer and client, client and sensory field. “What she calls the ‘mind field’ [“Mind is in the field not the brain”: VH.] I refer to as the energetic presence; and I was deeply touched by her insistence that true healing is a function of the transaction of two ‘minds’. It does not require physical touching.”

Last year I left the Annual Meeting shouting “Our Reptilian Brain Lives!!!”. This year, that (quoting Bill Smythe) 85% of our experience is in PROPRIOCEPTION!!!! and never even makes it to the Central Nervous System!?!

I had been an avid follower of Will’s contributions to Rolf Lines the last few years; and, picking up on an suggestion in one of his letters took the book Hara: The Vital Center of Man (by Karlfried Graf Durkheim) with me to India. It became the centerpiece of my pilgrimage. I rearranged both business and family schedules to not miss Will’s 3-Day, “Transformational Dimensions of Rolfing”, of the Institute. This interview took place at Sandra Ebling’s house the evening of the second day.

Like most teachers of proprio ceptive awareness and realms of the ineffable, Will has a lot to say, God bless him. So here goes:

Brill: I’ve been so looking forward to speaking with you. In your writings you’ve been pointing at using Rolfing as a gateway for clients becoming transformationally embedded into their somatic experience-that we could not just be giving someone a Line and unwrapping their Core, but having them living from a completely embodied awareness. I admit I’ve been excited by what you’re saying because that was what Rolfing was always about for me in the beginning. It would seem we should be the ranking experts in the world at effecting this, but, somehow, other things take up almost the whole of our trainings.

Will: I never felt that the Institute has taught about Core Living. Ida herself used to say, of course, “We teach what we can teach”, but the difficulty with that is we get overly focused on the techniques and lose sight of the ultimate possibilities-of what we could do, of what this work could be about.

I was always interested in these alternative possibilities of the work because that simply was my experience of being Rolfed. I didn’t come because I had a bad back. For me, it was about the kind of exploring I was doing. What excited me the most was as I was literally becoming more balanced in the field of Gravity, my body was allowing me to experience the kinds of conscious states I was attempting to manifest. It would allow these states simply to be there; a unified feeling state-extraordinarily pleasurable-which I remembered having had, about three times a week, when I was between the ages of seven and ten.

B: Was it like being extremely huge and microscopic at the same time?

W: Exactly!?! You know, the more I talk openly about these states, the more confirmation I get that lots of others have had these same experiences!

And, as it would start to come on I would always say “I’m gonna get really clear on what’s happening to me so I can tell Mom about it”. And, of course, every time it would happen I would just go into this place and couldn’t say a word about it later.

B: I never told my parents.

W: I never did either. They only thing that ever came close was an image of the sound of a vast, vast desert valley; and me sitting up on a high promontory looking down over this incredible valley with the silence just deafening: this feeling-state just so expansive and open and empty, unbelievably rich and full. There were a lot of strange things about this expanded state too. I would sometimes feel the right side of by body way over on the left side of the room, and my left side way out the window on the right. I’d feel the window sill that was 8″ away from me as though it were a mile away, and the trees a block away as though they were inside my body!?!

In my University years as, somehow, I began rekindling interest in these things, I came across a book on Nestorian Christianity (a sort of Chinese Taoiet esoteric yoga school), The Secret of the Golden Flame. And in that book they described their confirmatory experience, “the Circulation of the Light”, as “The Gods are in the Valley”. It was almost exactly the same metaphor and really got my attention. Then the first time I went into a deep state of mediation-I’d started sitting practice a couple of weeks earlier – it felt like the meditation was over, and then something just started going deeper… and deeper.. . and a little bit deeper … and a little bit deeper, and all of a sudden I was in tears because I realized I was experiencing again that state. A couple of years later as I was getting Rolfed I felt I was being given a body that supported that awareness to manifest completely naturally. I realized what I wanted my life to be about was to see how I could allow more of that expansive condition to become the natural condition of my life, rather than some exotic condition I’d touch now and then.

To this day I’m convinced what I call the Condition of Embodiment is not the altered state, but our natural state. The more I give myself permission to yield to, it loses its disorienting edge, and becomes very, very functional. What passes as “normal” eventually is revealed as the real altered state.

So this was always my vision of the job of Rolfing. And when I got into the Basic Training it was a little bit surprising that this wasn’t what was being talked about. In those days it was always being alluded to as this magic, this secret, this possibility; but no one as far as I know was actively speaking about it in any concrete terms. A major focus of what I’ve been doing is creating a model that could talk about just exactly what it is that’s transpiring. That’ll be my next book.

And I feel the principles and metaphor of Rolfing are critical to this end. Like anybody else I’ve had my ups and downs, but I’ve been fortunate to have had some experiences and openings that, for lack of a better word we would call spiritual; and to this day, I have never had an experience of that nature that was not simultaneously accompanied by a profound, spontaneous, and very natural manifestation of Line through the structure of my body.

B: In Balance of Body, Balance of Mind you talk about a balance around a Line that goes through the physical body, as we deal with in Rolfing, but also, somehow, “through” the Mind.

W: Yeah. When I started thinking about the attributes of a structure in balance as being alignment, symmetry, and resilience, I saw that these spoke to the mental realm as well. That a balanced mind is still aligned around that central core: It’s not too extroverted nor too introverted and its symmetrical in left/right brain function.

And this notion of resiliency became very, very important. The movement work is 100% critical here because if you’re holding yourself still, you’re creating what may pass as normal out there, but these states of transformation I’m alluding to are incredibly (!!) fluid and motile: people are in a constant state of movement-not necessarily gross, broad, dance-like movements-around-the-room-but when you actually start experiencing the body as this unified field of tactile “stuff’ it is constantly shifting around. Mentally, the kind of pickle we get into is when thoughts come up, we GRAB at them. We attach our “selves” to them. And it is that action which creates the fixated concept of an “I”. In these deeply embodied states, on the other hand, you keep getting glimpses of how illusory the “I” really is. In a resilient mind, concepts just come and pass through: no grabbing, no holding.

B: Can you talk about the image you have of us as seeds?

W: It was a notion that human beings can grow into fully functioning adults without having flowered into our birthright condition of Real Embodiment. Seeds need to what? Plant themselves into the earth, get the right kind of nurturing; and then they can sprout and flower. I believe the action of surrendering the weight of our body to the pull of Gravity is the condition that opens the way to our flowering. Yield completely and automatically there is this other kind of force that starts opening us up, from the mind out-and actually elongating and lengthening us. When we move into these states something just starts shifting at the level of consciousness. If it doesn’t shift you can bet there’s some holding back in the body.

B: In your 3-Day-and I know you’re hoping to rouse up support for something like a 10-Day out of the Institute too-you’ve been showing us a sitting dyad process you do with a client. God! You just seem to be able to get to layer upon layer that can be dropped through.

W: Yeah.

B: What’s your program with people to help them take this out into real life?

W: First of all, the bottom line to this Condition of Embodiment I keep talking about is its unimaginably comfortable. As Rolfers we’re, of course, motivated to help people let go of discomfort, pain, and holding. Well, this letting go and letting go and letting go is simply the essence of relaxation.

When spiritual teachers, for example, talk about dropping the mind, as for as I can tell, the process they’re alluding to is one in which they keep letting go of the holding in their body a literal physical dropping: the surrendering of the weight of the body to the pull of gravity. Through this letting go the more superficial level of the mind, the incessant internal monologue to which we almost totally identify-starts evaporating. That begins to become the mental transformation which happens in this work. On the physical side we move from a place where people don’t feel much at all, into a condition where the whole of the body comes together as a unified field of very palpable, tactile presence. The two of them-the very opened dimension of a quiet mind and the expansive tactile awareness-seem to manifest together or not at all.

How can I say this? If we could begin to accept ourselves exactly as we are … if we just keep dropping in to what our experience is and accepting that which is real-and allow that to yield into the next layer and then the next-and keep drop-ping, dropping, dropping, this Condition of Embodiment is what occurs. It occurs naturally, it occurs spontaneously. It does not occur by out trying to pump up some kind of exotic state. None of this is exotic in the least. It’s the simple, natural state of a life that can accept itself, relaxing without resisting, into the body.

And those of us who open into this dimension realize that, hey, this is what being human is all about. I’ll have clients commonly in tears talking about “I’ve finally come home”.

B: The Rolfing format really is open-ended enough for us to address this kind of thing. And after all, if we don’t bring it up, who’s ever going to? Some Heller worker? Their psychotherapist probably won’t.

W: How I do it is this. Usually after an 8th session (if its going to happen and it definitely Isn’t for everyone. I do a lot of straight 10-Series work) I bring us to sitting facing each other and I enter that dimension myself, in effect, giving them an energetic environment to come into with me. One of the major tragedies of our world is that the kind of condition I’m alluding to is so rich and so fulfilling-and yet, its fundamentally taboo. Our culture simply has too many other agendas and priorities.

The transformational shift-and this gets very interesting is not from trying to change anything about what you experience; but by giving yourself permission to accept your experience RIGHT NOW in transpiring: all the auditory data, the visual data, and very much the tactile data-then to start yielding to this. Just to open into that kind of global awareness is what “waking up” is!

If I don’t hear the sounds of the crickets outside right now I’m blocking a whole segment of my experience, of my reality. Otherwise, you see, I’m asleep at the wheel. For me its this fundamental acknowledgment that on every part of the body, down to the smallest cell, there is a tactile sensation of some variety or another that can be felt. And even though these are unimaginably small in size (we’re probably talking about the interaction of subatomic particles) and are oscillating at unimaginably rapid rates of vibratory frequency, we can still feel them.

You can ask someone to hold out their hand and simply feel what is there. And they’ll report a kind of shimmering or a tingling, or a kind of electrical current that “is” their hand; and those are the sensations I’m referring to. They exist on all parts of the body at all times-not just when we turn our attention to them. I’m suggesting we generate a form of myofascial holding that effectively serves to completely numb-out our awareness of these sensations.

B: There’s been a lot of excitement recently about the expanding dimension of 2nd Paradigm Rolfing. We’ve even got our teachers out in the marketplace sharing it with the public. But I found it so wonderful that not only was the title of the Annual Meeting this year “Transformational Dimensions of Rolfing”, but that you were brought in as a keynote speaker. I immediately felt that your articles had provoked this theme and that it could balance us as therapists. Most of us didn’t become Rolfers because we though we could bang out a good living fixing necks and backs. Rolfing was our initiation into feeling embodied and feeling whole. This was it for me. But I’m 14 years in practice now and certainly since my Advanced Training with Michael Salveson I talk a whole lot more to clients about what specific problems I’m going to handle for them. But what you call disembodiment is always the real issue. I’m pretty good with movement cues from two cross-training 6 Days I’ve taken, and I’m empathic enough to sometimes say just the right thing or work just the right areas but I know I’m not interacting as deeply as I’d like because the changes I see don’t match my real hopes. You’ve created formats that address this problem of “really getting in there” with a client these three day retreats and five hour days with a person.

W: Well, first off, it may be time to talk about Rolfing as a path of transformation now that the technology behind the manipulative work has become so sophisticated. Ida always did say “get your Physics down before you try to do Metaphysics”.

2nd Paradigm work is completely appropriate for those clients who want things like greater range of motion or relief from specific areas of bodily pain-but who are not interested in having their lives turned upside-down in the way a total surrender to gravity can initiate. A great many of our clients are quite frankly seeking what I call “greater functionality within the condition of disembodiment”.

A growing number of people who are coming to see me are aware that the ultimate source of their body’s pain can be traced to this deadened condition itself. And they’re realizing that resolving their pain won’t come about through cosmetic improvement of symptoms, but, rather, through a radical liberation from their entire underlying holding pattern-this culture of disembodiment that binds us.

For me, the hands-on work doesn’t address what I call the Universal Holding Pattern-what Rosie [Spiegel] spoke about as our “Social Disease”. The hands-on work is wonderfully effective in dealing with personal patters of holding. The kind of thing were the neck is to one side and the shoulder is high and the pelvis tilted: these reflect the person’s individual history. What we don’t do so well with is deal with the very, very subtle layers of holding that keep us so fundamentally disembodied-that keep us believing we are our “monologue”. And while we haven’t trained ourselves to see or even recognize these layers of holding like we can a rotated vertebra, I cannot overemphasize how disabling they are, and how they effectively limit the kinds of experiences and awareness I view as our birthright! I see an examination of these layers as critical to our work as Rolfers, as these layers are fundamentally myofascial in origin. The Movement work is somewhat helpful in starting to soften it, the hands-on work too of course; but I got to a place where I saw they were in and of themselves not capable of going all the way through the myofascial holding, into transformed states.

It’s a paradoxical law that governs how transformation occurs. If you can accept yourself as you “are”, transformational shifts just start happening right-now. And the corollary to that law is if you try to change anything about how you are, to manipulate it into something else-even though in the beginning you may get some cosmetic changes. In the long run all you succeed in doing is feeding the persistence of what you’re trying to change.

So, essentially, what I do is enter that embodied state myself, and very gently guide my client into a kind of acceptance so it happens for them. What I found was this takes time and I couldn’t do it effectively in an hour or hour and a half session. So out of this, and this really strong position I have that what we’re really after is an actual Embodiment, my wife Lyn and I came up with these multi-day, multi-hour programs. We invite people to stay in this quite nice studio we’ve put together and we may work with them for four, five, six hours a day. Every single program is different. As you’ve seen in the workshop, how I work is that I just respond. The hands-on part is usually shorter. You can imagine, by the fourth or fifth or tenth day, so much is happening that the work becomes pretty incredible for both of us, and everything just moves much faster.

On a given day we might include a hands-on session, and a Movement session with Lyn-she was trained by Judith Aston when Judith was at the Institute-and I might spend one, two, or three hours working in the dyad.

Some people go into it very deeply, very quickly and go into a state that’s labeled in Mahayana Buddhism as “Sunyata”. Others go into primary contraction states-we saw that in the workshop-and go through a process of releases. But I never go fishing for anything. It’s not about making something happen or stopping something from happening. It’s about acknowledging that whatever you experience that moment is exactly what you’re supposed to be experiencing (or you wouldn’t be experiencing it). The degree to which you can accept that, these transformational shifts will occur. This work is all about NOW, all about path, there’s no place you’re trying to get to, it’s about opening to the experience your body is giving you in “this very moment!”. At the Annual Meeting Jeff Maitland quoted Hakuin [ 18th Century Zen Master] saying “This very land is the Lotus Land of Purity: this very body is the Body of Buddha “.

I can’t even begin to tell you what it’s like for me to do a hands-on session after I’ve spent a couple of hours with someone doing embodiment processing! It just goes deeper and deeper and deeper. Places we never knew about as locations of the holding come right up to the surface.

B: In the trainings we’re always warned to keep our work ideally to around an hour. Are you ever concerned about overloading the nervous system?

W: Well, you see, the other thing that occurs when you’re in a condition of Embodiment is what I call “River”. It’s a palpable field of strong energetic flow where the body feels almost like a river with a current and a direction of movement to yield to. The life force just starts moving right through you: nothing stays contained, and your body just becomes to a physical conduit a point in space-for this very strong energetic to pass through. To the degree this passes cleanly I don’t see nervous systems overloading.

B: What kinds of cues do you use to help people stay embodied after the sessions?

W: Well, I’m not offering any magic pills. Ultimately you get to choose whether to check out and go to sleep and not experience your body-shut out the crickets outside-or to open to the present moment of experience and drop both your weight into Gravity and your internal monologue. Ida always envisioned Rolfing as a way of life. And some of us loved the notion and some of use were embarrassed by it-that it sounded too pretentious. But, in actuality, once you’ve had a strong taste of this, everything gets shaken up. Most people can never go around again pretending that they hadn’t tasted it or that it wasn’t significant.

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